Five days before the Yankees’ first spring workout, we’ll keep counting down the key decisions to make in spring training. We’ve already looked at picking a backup catcher, setting a lineup, figuring out Triple-A depth, rounding out the bullpen and choosing a fifth starter. Today we’ll look at a decision that’s a combination of individual evaluation and full roster analysis.
What’s the best way to setup the Yankees bench?
The bench is all about role players. It’s about having backups at every position, about having some speed and defense in the late innings, and about using match-up hitters when necessary. It’s not about simply choosing which young catcher should play once a week; it’s about truly maximizing every spot on a 25-man roster.
Assuming a pretty standard roster construction — 12 pitchers, 13 position players — the Yankees have four bench spots to work with. Here are the projected reserves, their projected roles, and a few alternative ways of approaching each spot.
1. Chris Young
Role: Right-handed fourth outfielder
Similar option: Tyler Austin
Alternative approach: Right-handed utility man
Clearly the Yankees re-signed Young to be on the Opening Day roster. He brings right-handed balance to the outfield, and a bounce-back season would make him a real bargain. Ramon Flores would standout as a homegrown alternative, but he’s a lefty, which limits his value in an outfield that already has two lefties in Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner (and could have another in Garrett Jones). If being a right-handed hitter is a key aspect of this role, the alternative way of approaching it might involve thinking beyond the outfield. Both Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder have outfield experience, meaning they could bring Young’s right-handed balance, but also provide some infield utility. Young has decent speed and potential for impact at-bats against lefties, which will probably be tough to pass up.
2. Garrett Jones
Role: Left-handed outfield and first base depth
Similar option: Ramon Flores
Alternative approach: Prioritize either the bat or the glove
A secondary piece of the Nathan Eovaldi trade, Jones has left-handed power that makes him a solid match-up hitter against certain right-handed pitchers. He also brings value because of his ability to backup a first base, right field and designated hitter, three spots where the Yankees have significant age, health and production concerns. Flores also hits left-handed and has some first base experience, but he doesn’t bring nearly the same amount of power. Austin could be a right-handed version of the same thing. To use this roster spot differently would be to prioritize one or the other: either the bat or the glove. Either give the spot to a true utility guy (someone like Pirela who adds more defensive flexibility than Jones) or give the spot to a pure hitter (someone like Kyle Roller, who barely plays a passable version of first base, but just might bring more offensive upside). Either of those alternatives seems unlikely. Jones has just enough flexibility and just enough platoon power to actually fit the roster pretty well.
3. Brendan Ryan
Role: Backup shortstop/infielder
Similar option: Nick Noonan
Alternative approach: Let Stephen Drew back up at shortstop
If Drew is strictly a second baseman, then Ryan stands out as the only experienced option as a backup shortstop. Minor league free agent Noonan is probably next in line — seems likely to play shortstop in Triple-A — largely because guys like Refsnyder and Pirela aren’t really shortstops (Pirela’s done it in the past, but not well enough to stick at the position). Thing is, the Yankees don’t have to think of Drew strictly as a second baseman. Even if Drew is playing second base regularly, he also serve as the No. 2 option at short (kind of like Brett Gardner plays left field, but is still the No. 2 option in center). By treating Drew as the backup shortstop, the Yankees could open Ryan’s roster spot for someone who’s a lesser defender but a better hitter. In that case, either Refsnyder or Pirela could be a strong fit. It’s worth noting that losing Ryan would cut into the Yankees shortstop depth should either Drew or Didi Gregorius get hurt. Basically, the Yankees would be an injury away from having either Noonan or Cito Culver on the big league roster.
4. John Ryan Murphy
Role: Backup catcher
Similar option: Austin Romine
Alternate approach: Catcher as designated hitter
Every team needs a backup catcher, so there’s really no way to approach this roster spot with any sort of radical change. One way or another, the Yankees need two catchers. The only way to look at it differently would be to use the backup catcher as a regular designated hitter. If, for example, Alex Rodriguez looks lost at the plate and Murphy looks like one of the best right-handed bats in spring training, perhaps the Yankees could regularly put both Murphy and Brian McCann in the lineup. It would essentially open a spot on the bench for Rodriguez or someone else, while also opening the possibility of losing the DH if the starting catcher can’t finish a game. Seems unlikely as an everyday approach. More likely, the Yankees will simply choose a backup catcher and use him as such.
Associated Press photo
Pinch hitting: Tyler Patterson • 02.13.15
Quick and to the point, today’s Pinch Hitter sent a one-line bio: “Tyler is a life-long Yankee fan and an attorney in Washington, D.C.” That’s Tyler Patterson in an incredibly small nutshell. Perhaps he kept the bio so short because he was saving so many words for his actual post.
As for his post, he calls it: “The 2015 Yankees and Elite Team Defense.”
Inspired by Ruth, Gehrig, and many, many others, the Yankees at their best are an offensive juggernaut. Not to mitigate the team’s past pitching accomplishments (indeed, some old-time Yankee pitchers are criminally underrated) but success for the Yankees has been predominantly associated with the organization’s offensive prowess over the years. Such is the case for the teams that the organization has fielded since 1995, the first year I, like many other millennials, began watching the team.
I challenge anyone to name me a Yankee club since the 1995 season that has been known for its defense (in a positive manner). I know I can’t do it. Not that the Yankees haven’t fielded stout defensive teams since 1995, but the point is that defense is just not what the Yankees are ever known for. And when you look past player reputations and at the numbers, it is not difficult to understand why.
For example, recently retired Yankees legend Derek Jeter is easily one of the greatest shortstops in MLB history and one of the greatest Yankees of all time. However, none of that was due to his defense. For his career, Jeter had a TZ of -129, a DRS of -159 and a UZR/150 of -7.1. If you do not know what any of these stats are, that’s fine. As you might guess, all those negatives indicate Jeter was not a strong fielder. This jives with the traditional eye-test as well, the jump-throws and Gold Glove awards aside.
The same can be said about many other Yankees since 1995 (Williams, Posada, Giambi, O’Neill, Soriano, Sheffield). None of these players was an especially good fielder, and the list goes on. Very few Yankees since 1995 were great (or in most cases, even average) fielders. In fact, from 1995 through the 2014 season, the Yankees ranked dead last in all of baseball with a Def rating of -440.8 (Def, as calculated by FanGraphs, is a combination of two important factors of defensive performance: value relative to positional average [fielding runs] and positional value relative to other positions [positional adjustment]). The next worst club, the Cubs, had a Def of -308.5.
Since 1995, the Yankees cumulatively have been far and away the worst defensive squad in all of baseball.
That being said, the Yankees have showed marked improvement in team defense in the past several seasons. For example, the Yankees’ Def in 2013 was 21.4 and in 2014, 10.8.
This trend should continue in 2015, a season in which the Yankees might easily field their best defensive team since 1995.
The Yankees have made a conscious effort to get younger and cheaper wherever they can, and in baseball’s current suppressed run environment, the Yankees have realized that it is easier to upgrade the roster defensively rather than offensively. That is not to say there is not offensive upside to some of the Yankees’ offseason acquisitions, but improved team defense has certainly been on the mind of the front office, especially during the last two offseasons.
Let us run through the 2014 squad position by position and compare it to the projected team for the upcoming season. It is clear that the 2015 squad projects to be fantastic defensively, perhaps the best defensive team since 1995.
McCann is the Yankees’ catcher for the foreseeable future after the team signed him to a five-year deal following the 2013 season. He saw the bulk of the work behind the plate in 2014 and did not disappoint, at least defensively. McCann is a world-class defender and one of the best defensive backstops in baseball. His Def of 11.5 in 2014 was exactly what the Yankees signed up for, as was his pitch-framing performance (11.4 Runs Above Average, good for 11th in MLB. This represents a “down” year for McCann, who is consistently top 10 in MLB every season in this category). Long story short, McCann is an elite defensive backstop, and he projects to continue to be so, as his 2015 projected Def of 8.8 illustrates.
Backing up McCann will presumably be Murphy, who anyone will tell you is an above average defender behind the plate. The Yankees have been emphasizing catcher defense for some time now, and with Murphy (and McCann for that matter) the Yankees continue the trend. It is not actually settled who will be the Yankee backup catcher, as Austin Romine will also be “competing” for the role in spring training, but my money is on Murphy with Romine being dealt or placed on waivers. Murphy is clearly the better player, both defensively and offensively.
Obviously, Teixeira will be the Yankees’ first baseman in 2015, at least until the obligatory injury. Unlike last year, the Yankees have a back-up first baseman on their roster in Jones, although his defensive abilities leave a lot to be desired. First base, like catcher, is a position where I do not put too much stock in advanced statistics because, at least in my experience, the stats do not measure up to the eye test. Teixeira is a perfect example of this. Teixeira has had a pretty consistent negative Def rating throughout his career, and last season was no different, as his -3.6 shows. His UZR/150, however, was 7.1 last season and has been consistently positive in his career. That jives more with my perception of Teixeira and my experience watching him pretty regularly since 2009, but it is also obvious confirmation bias.
Either way, I’m not the only one who will tell you Tex is at least an average defender at first, and probably slightly above average. I expect no different in 2015, so long as he can stay on the field (a BIG if in his age-35 season). If injured, the aforementioned Jones figures to man first base. He is projected for a -9.1 Def, which is not very good, and unlike Teixeira, the eye-test does not save Jones; he has never been thought of as a strong defender, and the stats back that up. Let’s hope Teixeira remains healthy. Or, if not, that Greg Bird is mauling in Trenton and gets a call. Unlikely, but I can dream.
Offensively, second base was a mess for the Yankees last season until they dealt for Martin Prado, who was fantastic in his 37 games for the Yankees (his true value was as trade bait, allowing the Yankees to obtain Jones and Nathan Eovaldi). Defensively, however, the myriad of players the Yankees played at second combined for a -1.9 Def, which is not awful but not great either. A carryover from last season, Drew, was signed to a no-risk, one-year, $5-million deal to hold second base down until Refsnyder is ready to permanently take over (or until the Yankees gain another year of team control by manipulating Refsnyder’s service time).
Drew’s calling card in his career has been his defense at short, which has always been excellent. There is no reason to think that, save for a minor adjustment period, he will not be able to excel at the less-demanding second base position. A legitimate reason why the Yankees may not, as of this moment, be comfortable opening the 2015 season with Refsnyder as their everyday second basemen is his defense. A converted outfielder, Refsnyder has taken to second base well, but there is certainly room for improvement. The scouting reports peg Refsnyder as an average defensive second baseman at best, but combined with Drew’s projected performance, as well as Brendan Ryan’s skill as the infield backup, the team’s second base defense should be at least as good as it was last year, and probably much better. Backing up either of these players will be Ryan, a world-class defensive infielder.
We have already discussed Jeter’s defensive shortcomings, and last season was no different as he compiled a -4.0 Def, a -12.5 UZR/150, and a -12 DRS. By any measure Jeter was a very, very bad fielder last season. His replacement this season will be Gregorius, who projects to compile a 4.3 Def, a huge improvement over 2014 Jeter.
Gregorius has a reputation as being a strong defender with excellent range and a cannon for an arm, and let’s hope we see that in 2015. Under team control for the next several seasons, the position is Gregorius’s to lose (at least until Jorge Mateo is ready to take over) and the Yankees will give him every opportunity to be their everyday shortstop for the foreseeable future. Having Chase Headley manning third base will also make his job much easier, allowing Gregorius to shade up the middle more so than he normally would.
The Yankees opened 2014 with Kelly Johnson as their starting third baseman, and the position was a mess until Headley was acquired before the trade deadline. Signed to a four-year deal this offseason (at a below market rate), Headley is the Yankees’ third basemen moving forward. From a defensive standpoint, the Yankees are set. In only 58 games with the team last year, Headley compiled a 12.4 Def and has been an absolute defensive stud throughout his career.
Combined with Gregorius, the defense on the left side of the infield will be among the best in baseball. Like second base, third base was not as bad defensively as I thought it was in 2014 (thanks mainly to Headley), but with Headley in pinstripes for an entire season, third-base defense will be an absolute strength for the 2015 squad. Headley is among the best defensive third baseman in all of baseball, and it will be fun watching him man the hot corner for the Yankees in 2015 and beyond.
Gardner was signed to a team-friendly four-year deal that begins this season, and barring a trade (which I do not think is out of the question) he will be the Yankees’ left fielder in 2015 and for the foreseeable future. Gardner is a superb defender in any outfield position, and left field is no different. It is important for the Yankees to man left field with a strong defender given the stadium’s dimensions, and Gardner handles it about as well as a player can. Because of this, he has more value to the Yankees than most other (if not all) teams.
Look for Gardner to continue his defensive excellence, giving the Yankees another above-average defended position. He also serves as a backup to center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, further adding to Gardner’s value.
In the second year of a seven-year deal he signed prior to the 2014 season, Ellsbury will once again man center field. There is not much to say here, as Ellsbury has always been a very strong defensive center fielder, and 2015 projects to be no different.
This gives the Yankees yet another position fielded by an above-average defender.
Right field is the only position on the diamond I believe the Yankees will field below-average defenders in 2015. Last season, Beltran projected to be the everyday right fielder. Long gone are the years when Beltran was an elite defender in center field. Since 2009, Beltran has been a below-average fielder wherever he has played, mainly in right, and 2015 projects to be no different. Beltran suffered a myriad of injuries in 2014, and the Yankees were forced to play multiple players in right as a result. I expect the Yankees to DH Beltran quite a bit this season due to his age and the fact that he can still hit plenty when healthy. That will leave Young to get plenty of reps in right in 2015, especially against lefties as he is a career 116 wRC+ hitter against them.
Projection wise, Beltran sits at a -11.8 Def for 2015, while Young sits at a -2.2 Def. It is important to note that there is not a lot of room in right field in Yankee stadium, so bad defense in right for the Yankees is far less detrimental than it would be to, say, the Athletics or Padres. This is also a reason why I tend to shy away from advanced defensive statistics for Yankees’ right fielders, but I digress. The stats back up the eye tests for both Beltran and Young.
I am not going to analyze Ryan or Young any more than I already have because the backup infielder and fourth outfielder positions are very fluid on every team in baseball and it would not be a shock if Ryan and/or Young end the 2015 season off the active roster. That being said, the Yankees project to field an exceptional defensive squad in 2015 and, save for right field, will have at least an average fielder at every position.
In an era where run scoring is down significantly due mainly to an ever-expanding strike zone, it is far easier to upgrade pitching and defense. The Yankees have done a very, very good job upgrading team defense the past two offseasons, and it should be fun to watch.
Associated Press photos
I don’t have any hard statistics on this, but lefty specialists must be among the most common, highly specific role players on major league rosters. Not every team has one, but it’s not at all unusual to see at least one left-on-left guy in any given bullpen. It’s kind of a tiny role to play, but most teams find someone to do it. It’s kind of like carrying a pinch runner, or a powerful pinch hitter, or a pure defensive replacement on the bench: there’s an obvious benefit, it’s just a matter of finding room on the roster. In the case of lefty specialists, most teams seem to prioritize finding the room.
I point that out only because that’s one highly specific role the Yankees don’t necessarily have filled at this point. They have plenty of left-handed relievers, but not one who’s specifically assigned to those left-on-left situations (guys like Andrew Miller and Justin Wilson will surely face plenty of right-handers as well).
Do the Yankees have anyone to fill some of the other typical, highly specific roles next season?
The Yankees should get some difference-making speed out of Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, but those two are going to be lineup regulars, not pick-your-moment pinch runners. If the Yankees need some late-inning speed, their best bet is probably Chris Young. He’s had only 26 stolen bases the past three years combined, but he’s a better source of speed than John Ryan Murphy, Brendan Ryan or Garrett Jones. If Jose Pirela finds a spot on the roster, he can run a little bit, but he’s not an extreme base stealer.
Power pinch hitter
Every team has some pinch hit options on the bench, but there seems to be specific value in a guy who can come off the bench and provide some pop in a key situation. Sometimes it depends on the matchup — a right-handed or left-handed pitcher on the mound — and the Yankees could have two potential power bats on the bench in Young (against lefties) and Jones (against righties). Jones especially stands out as a pick-your-moment weapon if he’s able to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field. In a big RBI situation, he could be a better bet than Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew or Alex Rodriguez.
The Yankees most obvious defensive replacement is Ryan, but he’s also a defensive replacement for an infield that should be pretty good defensively even without him. Is Ryan a definite upgrade over Gregorius, Ryan, Chase Headley or Mark Teixeira? Really, Ryan’s more of defensive insurance, a guy who can provide a solid glove in case an infielder gets hurt. The real defensive replacement might be Young, who should be a right-field sub for Carlos Beltran in the late innings.
Not sure this really counts as a highly specific role these days. It’s pretty common for teams to have a player or two who only jumps into the starting lineup for specific matchups. The Yankees might have two of them in Young and Jones — one to play against lefties, one against righties — but that really depends on whether guys like Beltran and Rodriguez are productive (best-case scenario involves those two having no need for platoon protection). Instead, the Yankees best platoon situation might be in the middle of the infield, with either a platoon of Gregorius and Ryan at shortstop, or a platoon of Drew and Pirela at second (I would say Rob Refsnyder in that platoon, but surely if he’s on the team, it’s to play against more than just left-handed starters).
Not exactly a role anyone wants to play, but the fact is, basically every bullpen needs someone who’s capable of eating multiple innings when a game has turned lopsided one way or the other. That role is basically the way David Phelps broke into the big leagues in 2012. Adam Warren had that job early in 2013. Last year, the Yankees cycled through a several mopup guys who didn’t follow the Phelps/Warren path to something better. This year? Maybe Esmil Rogers could eat innings, or maybe there’s a spot for a guy like Chase Whitley or Bryan Mitchell to start the season as a mopup man with hopes of becoming something more substantial.
Aside from the roles that aren’t really for “role players” — ace, first baseman, closer, leadoff hitter, etc. — every player who’s in a specific role is probably hoping for something better and more significant. That’s certainly true for this one. A team’s sixth starter is usually either a long man in the bullpen (a mopup man) or starter in Triple-A. Right now, the Yankees next-in-line starter is pretty hard to define. We know the projected top five, but the sixth starter could be a safe bet for the bullpen (Warren or Rogers) or a safer bet for Triple-A (Whitley, Mitchell, Scott Baker). The sixth starter will have to define himself in spring training, and that role will surely shift through the course of the season. Ideally, the sixth starter the Yankees use this season will be Ivan Nova.
Associated Press photos
Just starting the first week of February, the free agent market has grown predictably thin. James Shields is still out there, as are a couple of experienced closers, but the market is really down the bare bones.
Here’s an attempt to list the significant free agent signings each team has made this offseason. In some cases, the term “significant” is stretched to the limit (I’ve included a handful of minor league deals with recognizable names, most of whom will never play anything close to a significant role). Obviously free agency isn’t the only way to build a team — the Padres, for example, used trades to completely restructure their outfield — but this does give some idea of which teams were most active on the open market this winter.
You’ll notice the Yankees have quite a few names attached, but almost all are re-signings, and there’s a chance that only two will play a particularly big role in 2015.
Blue Jays – Russell Martin, Andy Dirks, Daric Barton, Ronald Belisario, Ramon Santiago
Orioles – J.P. Arencibia, Delmon Young, J.J. Hardy (re-signed before he hit the market)
Rays – Asdrubal Cabrera, Ernesto Frieri, Ronald Belisario
Red Sox – Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Justin Masterson, Craig Breslow, Alexi Ogando, Koji Uehara (re-signed before he hit the market)
Yankees – Andrew Miller, Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Chris Capuano, Andrew Bailey
Indians – Gavin Floyd
Royals – Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, Kris Melden, Ryan Madson
Tigers – Victor Martinez, Tom Gorzelanny
Twins – Ervin Santana, Torii Hunter, Tim Stauffer
White Sox – Dave Robertson, Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, Zach Duke, Emilio Bonifacio, Gordon Beckham, Geovany Soto, Jesse Crain
Angels – no standout free agent additions
Astros – Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek
Athletics – Billy Butler
Mariners – Nelson Cruz, Endy Chavez
Rangers – Kyuji Pujikawa, Adam Rosales, Colby Lewis, Kyle Blanks
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves – Nick Markakis, Jason Grilli, A.J. Pierzynski, Jim Johnson, Alberto Callaspo, Dian Toscano, Jonny Gomes, Kelly Johnson, Zoilo Almonte
Marlins – Mike Morse, Ichiro Suzuki
Mets – Michael Cuddyer, John Mayberry
Nationals – Max Scherzer, Casey Janssen, Dan Uggla
Phillies – Aaron Harang, Wandy Rodriguez, Chad Billingsley, Grady Sizemore, Jerome Williams (Sizemore and Williams were extended before they hit the market)
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers – Neal Cotts, Dontrelle Willis, Aramis Ramirez (options picked up on both ends)
Cardinals – Mark Reynolds, Matt Belisle, Dean Anna
Cubs – Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Chris Denorfia, Jason Motte, David Ross
Pirates – Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jung-ho Kang, Corey Hart
Reds – Jason Marquis, Brennan Boesch, Paul Maholm
Diamondbacks – Yasmany Tomas, Gerald Laird
Dodgers – Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, Erik Bedard, David Huff
Giants – Jake Peavy, Sergio Romo, Nori Aoki, Ryan Vogelsong
Padres – Brandon Morrow, Josh Johnson, Clint Barmes, Ramiro Pena, Wil Nieves
Rockies – Daniel Descalso, Nick Hundley, John Axford
Associated Press photo
I don’t want to stun anyone with such a personal revelation, but I’m going to make a lot less than $5 million this year. A whole lot less. In my line of work, that sort of money isn’t even a part of the conversation. It’s not like I go to my bosses each year, ask for $5 million, then negotiate down from there.
In Major League Baseball, though, $5 million isn’t absurd. It’s not nothing, but it’s not overwhelming. In the right circumstances, a team can guarantee $5 million and then walk away. It’s happened before.
So what does Stephen Drew’s one-year, $5-million deal mean to the Yankees this season? Does that level of financial commitment mean he’s locked into an everyday job no matter what? Is he even guaranteed a roster spot through the end of the season?
It’s not only Drew who comes with those sort of questions. Garrett Jones and Chris Capuano are also owed $5 million this season. Chris Young is on a one-year deal worth $2.5 million. Brendan Ryan is owed $2 million this year with a $1 million player option for next year, so the Yankees could look at him as a one-year, $3-million investment.
As we consider roles and playing time heading into the 2015 season — or, to be more honest, as we think about ways Rob Refsnyder, Jose Pirela or some other young guy could still make the big league roster — it’s worth remembering that Drew, Jones, Capuano, Young and Ryan are not such heavy investments that the Yankees have to stick with them under any circumstances. These guys are a long way from making Rodriguez, Teixiera or Beltran money.
They are, to at least some extent, financially disposable.
Back in 2010, veteran outfielder Randy Winn was on a one-year, $2-million deal when the Yankees released him before the end of May. In 2011, Jorge Posada was still making $13.1 million when he became essentially a part-time, bottom-of-the-order player by the end of the season. In 2012, Freddy Garcia was making $4 million when the Yankees pulled him from the rotation after a bad month of April. In 2013, the Yankees signed Mark Reynolds late in the year only after the Indians released him despite a one-year, $6-million contract.
The 2014 Yankees were loaded with similar examples.
Ichiro Suzuki was making $6.5 million, yet the Yankees intentionally added enough outfielders to push him into what was supposed to be an extremely limited bench role last season. Alfonso Soriano was getting $5 million from the Yankees and was released in early July. Brian Roberts was making $2 million and got released at the trade deadline. Kelly Johnson was on a $3-million deal, and the Yankees essentially benched him in favor of a minor league free agent.
No team happily moves away from a player making upward of $5 million. It’s surely enough money to get the benefit of the doubt for a month or so. But it happens from time to time, and the Yankees might have to be prepared to do it again if they’re truly committed to giving young players a real chance in the big leagues.
Depth is a good thing, and the Yankees needed some depth given their age and health concerns. They got deeper with those deals for guys like Drew, Young and Capuano.
Depth, though, can’t and shouldn’t stand in the way of young progress. It doesn’t have to stand in the way this season.
Associated Press photos
If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about the Hall of Fame, you might already know this: I love the Hall of Fame, but I don’t get too worked up about Hall of Fame debates. I think they’re interesting, and I think they’re worthwhile — they force us to re-examine some great careers, and that’s meaningful — but I ultimately don’t get too fussed about who’s in and who’s out.
Erik’s post this morning made a pretty incredible case for Mike Mussina as a Hall of Famer, but I’m still not mad that Tom Glavine is in and Mussina is not. I thought of Mussina as a Hall of Famer before, I’m more convinced now, and I find the conversation interesting. I’m just not losing sleep over the end result. I think Glavine deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I think Mussina should join him. And even if he doesn’t, Mussina will still have been a really, really great pitcher.
What Erik’s post got me thinking about most was the idea of an underappreciated baseball player. Perhaps Mussina was one. Maybe Tim Raines was one. I realized a few years ago that Fred McGriff was one. Most underappreciated players, though, far fall short of the Hall of Fame standard and will never be a part of a Hall of Fame debate.
Until last year, I think you could argue that Brett Gardner was an underappreciated baseball player. He had to walk on to his college team. He spent much of his minor league career labeled as a fourth outfielder. He had a hard time winning everyday playing time in the big leagues. The past two years, though, Gardner’s emerged as a legitimate everyday left fielder. Maybe he’s not a conventional left fielder — not so much power, more speed and defense — but he’s been a good one, and the Yankees have rewarded him with a contract extension and regular at-bats.
So who from this year’s Yankees might be underappreciated at the moment? Here are a few possibilities:
1. Stephen Drew
Last year’s numbers were awful, and because of that, Drew’s easy to dismiss as an absurd investment, even on a relatively small one-year, $5-million contract. But only a year ago, plenty of Yankees fans wanted Drew on the roster. He has a career OPS of .747, and until last season he’d never finished remotely close .536. His strong 2013 with Boston was pretty close to a typical season for him. Now, Drew’s had a regular offseason and should have a normal spring training, which is surely a good sign for him. He missed much of the 2011 spring training because of an abdominal issue. He missed the start of 2012 because of an ankle injury. He missed most of the 2013 spring training with a concussion. He got a late start last year because of his contract situation. Drew’s been a pretty good middle infielder through most of his career, and could be a solid buy-low opportunity for the Yankees.
2. Mark Teixeira
Granted, he’s being paid like an MVP, and there’s little hope that he’ll actually hit like an MVP. In terms of contract status, Teixeira is far from underappreciated. But at some point, public opinion might have swung too far toward the negative. A severe wrist injury forced Teixeira to miss nearly all of 2013 and forced him into an unusual winter heading into 2014. If that’s the reason his bat declined in the second half of last season — because he wasn’t in his usual shape — then Teixeira might not be the lost cause he’s often made out to be. Through the first three months of last season, before fatigue might have set in, Teixeira slugged .474, which is a really good slugging percentage these days. He doesn’t have the all-around production that the Yankees expected in 2008, but if he can maintain his power numbers this year, he could still be a viable run producer.
3. Adam Warren
He’s only seven months older than Dellin Betances. His fastball has gotten sneaky fast out of the bullpen, averaging 95 mph last season. His 2014 WHIP, FIP and strikeout rate were each better than Hiroki Kuroda’s or Brandon McCarthy’s (after McCarthy came to New York). And while it’s not really fair to compare a reliever to a starter, all of Warren’s numbers except his strikeout rate were better than Shawn Kelley’s last season. He’s not a flashy guy — and he had an unmistakably bad month — but Warren had a really nice year. And while he was never a huge prospect, he was always a good one. The guy can pitch, and given his background as a starter, he’s probably worth considering as solid rotation insurance in spring training. If we thought of David Phelps that way, why not Warren?
4. Nathan Eovaldi
Just an observation, but there seems to have been a lot of regret about losing Shane Greene without much excited about the addition of Eovaldi. Last season, Eovaldi had a lower FIP, a lower WHIP, and a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Greene. Eovaldi is also younger than Greene by more than a year. And if this is a comparison of upside, it’s worth noting that Eovaldi was considered a Top 100 prospect, which is far higher than Greene ever ranked on lists like that. Greene took a giant step forward the past two years, and that made him an organizational success story, but there’s certainly a chance — maybe even a good chance — that Eovaldi will be better than Greene this season. For a 25-year-old fourth starter, Eovaldi could be a better addition than he gets credit for being.
5. Chris Young
As an everyday player, no thank you. Young used to bring a fairly reliable .750 OPS with about 20 homers and 20 steals while playing center field. That’s not superstar quality, but he was a 5 WAR player twice (Jacoby Ellsbury was only 3 WAR last year, according to Baseball Reference). These days, though, Young’s numbers have slipped, and advanced metrics show he’s not nearly the center fielder he used to be. He’s more of a fourth outfielder at this point … and that’s exactly what the Yankees are asking him to be. His splits against lefties were unusually low last season — even in his disappointing 2013 season, he hit lefties much better than last year — and as long as those drift back toward the norm, he should be a nice fit as a right-handed bench player. If someone gets hurt, those splits should help him fit nicely in a replacement platoon. Teams can’t get much for $2.5 million, but Young might actually be a better fit than he gets credit for being.
Associated Press photos
Whatever the batting order, it’s the hitters themselves that will determine whether the Yankees lineup is any good this season. Joe Girardi could put them in the perfect 1 through 9, but if key players don’t perform up to their abilities, the offense simply won’t work. Hitters don’t have to be at their absolute peak to become valuable assets again, but key hitters reverting back toward key career stats would be a good strong step in the right direction.
If these specific players could bounce back in these specific ways, it would make a big difference.
MARK TEIXEIRA – Slugging percentage
Last season: .398
Teixeira has acknowledged that he’s probably not going to be a .300 hitter at this stage of his career. The shift has taken away a lot of his hits, and he’s just not a .300/.400/.500 guy anymore. But in 2012 — his last healthy season before last year — Teixeira slugged .475. That would have been the 12th-heighest slugging percentage in the American League last season. And it’s not that Teixeira absolutely can’t do that any more (he was slugging .474 at the end of June before a brutal second half). Power is at a premium these days, and Teixeira doesn’t have to be a great overall hitter to be a productive run producer.
BRIAN MCCANN – OPS vs. RHP
Last season: .633
McCann actually hit pretty well against lefties last season. Even exceeded his career numbers against them. What he did not do is hit against right-handers. He’d typically crushed them, but last season McCann slugged less than .400 with a sub-.300 on-base percentage against right-handers. Blame it on the shift. Blame it on the transition. Blame it on a bad year fully of lofty expectations. For whatever reason, McCann simply didn’t hit right-handers. Now that the American League East has lost several left-handed starters — including standouts Jon Lester and David Price — McCann should be able to feast on a bunch of righties in the division. Improve his splits, and McCann should significantly improve his production.
CARLOS BELTRAN – RBI
Last season: 49
Because of the elbow injury, it’s hard to know what to make of Beltran’s capabilities at this point. Was last year’s diminished slash line the product of age or injury? As recently as 2013, Beltran was still an .830 OPS guy. In his career he’s typically hit for a good average, hit for good power, and played a role in the middle of the order. That’s why he’s averaged more than 100 RBI per 162 games. Clearly RBI is not really an individual statistic. It depends heavily on playing time, and it depends on the rest of the lineup, and that’s why it’s such a key stat for Beltran. However he does it — through raw power or clutch hits or simply an abundance of opportunities — another 100 RBI season from Beltran would indicate that he’s stayed healthy and stayed in a lineup that’s generating plenty of run-scoring chances. As a guy the Yankees will surely count on in the middle of the order, a lot of Beltran RBI would be a good sign for the entire Yankees team.
JACOBY ELLSBURY – Stolen bases
Last season: 39
This is just a guess, but if Ellsbury is back at the top of the order (focusing on getting on base and creating havoc) rather than hitting in the middle (focusing on driving in runs and being a typical No. 3 hitter), I bet he’ll steal more bases this season. I might be completely wrong — and certainly a 39-steal season isn’t bad by any measure, it was the second-most in the American League — but a higher number of stolen bases would seem to indicate a better job getting on base and a willingness to run. In each of Ellsbury’s two highest-steal seasons, he’s had a .355 on-base percentage, which is 27 points higher than his on-base percentage last season. Stolen bases are hardly an absolute proof of Ellsbury’s productivity — he also had 39 steals in 2011, which was easily his overall best season — but a lot of steals in 2015 could be a sign of several things for the Yankees: It would suggest Ellsbury’s getting on base a lot, and that someone else hitting well enough in the middle of the order that Ellsbury gets to stay in his more-natural No. 1 or 2 spot.
STEPHEN DREW – Batting average on balls in play
Last season: .194
At times, BABIP is considered a measure of luck. If a typically good hitters has abnormally bad numbers, then a low batting average on balls in play could be an indication that he’s a few inches away from typical production. In the case of Drew, last year’s abnormally low BABIP could also be explained by his abnormally low line drive percentage. His home runs per fly ball were also down, as were his infield hits. His strikeout rate was significantly higher than usual. All of that could be an indication that Drew wasn’t simply unlucky last season, he simply wasn’t as prepared, making weaker contact when he made contact at all. Surely the Yankees aren’t banking on Drew being a dominant offensive player, but they’re obviously banking on him being better than last season’s .162/.237/.299. Better and more consistent contact should help.
CHRIS YOUNG – OPS vs. LHP
Last season: .561
Similar to the McCann situation, but from the opposite side of the plate and in a much smaller role. Even with that strong month of September, Young’s splits last season were not at all what’s come to be expected. He was alright against right handers, but he was brutal against lefties. Given all of the left-handed hitters in the Yankees regular lineup — and the presence of Garrett Jones as left-handed outfield option off the bench — Young’s role this season seems to be entirely in a platoon situation, bringing some right-handed balance to a team that leans to the left. Whether he’s in the lineup against lefties or coming off the bench to pinch hit for Drew or Didi Gregorius, Young could have a real impact if he’s able to make the most of his limited playing time against left-handers.
Associated Press photos
On the 40-man: Chris Young • 01.20.15
Continuing to look at every player on the Yankees 40-man roster, we’ll next turn to one of the least likely pieces of the 2015 team. Released by the Mets last season, he wound up taking a minor league contract with the Yankees, and he turned a September call-up into an impressive audition. One strong month convinced the Yankees he was worth one full year.
Age on Opening Day: 31
Acquired: Originally signed to a minor league deal in late August
Added to the 40-man: Re-signed to a big league deal in early November
In the past: A good combination of speed, power and defense, Young once looked like one of the better young center fielders in baseball. Before the 2007 season, he was basically a consensus Top 20 prospect in the game, and he became a legitimately productive big leaguer for a few years in Arizona. The past two years, though, his OPS has dipped below .700, which has led to his fall into a bench role.
Role in 2015: Although their roster has plenty of upper-level outfielders, the Yankees needed some right-handed balance and found it with a one-year, $2.5-million deal with Young. If he earns more at-bats, he’ll earn more money, but for now Young enters the season as a fourth outfielder who could see fairly steady playing time against left-handed pitching. He hit his way into the regular lineup at the end of last season.
Best case scenario: The Yankees basically witnessed the best-case scenario last season when Young showed up and hit .282/.354/.521 for a month. Some of those hits were big hits, too. Young doesn’t have to hit quite to that level to be a valuable role player off the bench. But if he hits like he did back in 2010 (.793 OPS; all-star selection), he could be a legitimate alternative to Carlos Beltran as a backup everyday right fielder.
Worst case scenario: The Mets basically witnessed the worst-case scenario last season when Young hit just .205/.283/.346, lost his everyday job and wound up released. For the Yankees, the worst-case scenario is that level of production, coupled with a real need to play Young a lot more than once or twice a week. If an outfielder gets hurt, Young might have to play more regularly, which means the Yankees will need better production.
What the future holds: Probably not much. For Young, this contract is an opportunity to reestablish himself and hit the open market again next winter. For the Yankees, it’s a chance to plug a hole on the bench, on that they hope to fill from within next season. Young is a stopgap with some short-term upside and no long-term commitment.
Associated Press photo
With Slade Heathcott re-signed to a minor league deal, the Yankees now have a ton of outfield depth, but still not the kind of depth that necessitates a trade or a particularly difficult decision. It’s not like the Francisco Cervelli situation in which the Yankees have a player with a defined value, along with the need to move someone in order to open up the proper at-bats for everyone else. Here’s a rough look at the Yankees top upper-level outfielders. Each comes with some good, some bad, and some reason — either because of the team’s needs or because of his own value — that limits his trade possibilities.
The good: Already a borderline Hall of Famer expected to be healthy again after last year’s elbow injury.
The bad: About to turn 38 years old — are we sure last year’s .703 OPS was strictly the product of injury?
Trade him? Not a lot of trade value in an aging player, coming of a bad year, with $30 million left on his deal.
The good: Signed a hefty deal last winter and more or less delivered an as-expected season in his Yankees debut.
The bad: Even coming off a solid season, seven years and $153 million is a massive contract.
Trade him? Might be the best position player on the roster right now.
The good: Power numbers spiked, and for a while he looked like a better player than Ellsbury last year.
The bad: Still a rather streaky player with limited power for a corner outfielder.
Trade him? Might be the most valuable trade chip on the big league roster, but also signed to a reasonable extension.
The good: History of left-handed power with an ability to backup first base, right field and designated hitter.
The bad: Turns 34 in June and his power numbers have been down the past two seasons.
Trade him? Would be more of a salary dump than an actual effort to get anything valuable in return (also provides first base insurance).
The good: Returns to bring right-handed balance after reestablishing himself with a terrific September.
The bad: Other than one good month, last season was bad enough to get him released … by the Mets.
Trade him? Plays a role the Yankees need as a veteran right-handed bat with power and speed off the bench.
The good: Last year’s terrific second half brought back memories of how good a hitter he was earlier in his career.
The bad: A wrist injury contributed to much less exciting numbers before that second-half resurgence.
Trade him? Of all the outfielders ticketed for Triple-A, Austin probably has the most offensive impact potential.
The good: Left-handed hitters with speed and some defensive flexibility; looks like a nice fourth outfielder down the road.
The bad: Coming off an ankle injury and isn’t a great fit while Gardner and Ellsbury are on the roster.
Trade him? Low power potential probably limits his value to more of a second or third piece in a significant trade.
The good: Right-handed hitter who’s shown some speed, defense and on-base ability in the minor leagues.
The bad: Plucked off waivers, suggesting he was not exactly a high commodity (also put up bad winter ball numbers this year).
Trade him? Value is pretty low just a few months after being placed on the waiver wire; DFA might be more likely than a trade.
The good: Offensive utility man put himself back on the prospect map — and in the big league picture — with a terrific Triple-A season.
The bad: Can’t really play shortstop and hasn’t really established whether he hits enough to keep a job in the big leagues.
Trade him? First and foremost, he seems to have a legitimate shot at the big league second base job heading into spring training.
The good: Speed and defense were deemed major-league ready, enough to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this winter.
The bad: Hasn’t hit the past two years, doing a number on his once elite prospect status.
Trade him? Would be selling awfully low — Williams no longer has the value to remotely headline a significant deal.
The good: Might have surpassed Williams and Heathcott as the system’s top center field prospect.
The bad: Doesn’t have overwhelming speed or power, and doesn’t have more than 42 games above A ball.
Trade him? Could be a nice complementary trade piece; could also be the most viable center fielder in the minor league system.
The good: The guys gets on base way too much to ignore; played his way out of the shadows and up to Triple-A last year.
The bad: Never a standout prospect, doesn’t run much, very little power, has spent more time in left field than center.
Trade him? Has never moved the needle among prospect watchers, suggesting his stock is too low to be considered a real chip.
The good: Has been a solid hitter throughout the minor leagues, even when easily overshadowed by other prospects.
The bad: Always kind of a sleeper prospect, but not one who’s forced people to really wake up and take notice.
Trade him? Hasn’t done nearly enough; could more easily simply become a Double-A bench player behind all of this depth.
The good: Has been a pretty nice hitter both in Triple-A and in winter ball (able to play center field and third base in a pinch).
The bad: Turns 30 years old in April so the upside is probably limited.
Trade him? Sure, if some team values a 30-year-old with no major league experience; could be another Ronnier Mustelier.
The good: No one seems to question the former first-round pick’s raw talent and ultimate potential.
The bad: Just can’t stay healthy, which has cost valuable development time; hard to gauge his ceiling at this point.
Trade him? Was a free agent until yesterday; if another team valued him highly, he probably wouldn’t have come back.
The good: After a standout first full season, he emerged as the top offensive prospect in the entire minor league system.
The bad: Ultimately we’re talking about fewer than 500 minor league at-bats; he’s promising but unproven.
Trade him? Plenty of value here, but Judge could be the best middle-of-the-order bat the Yankees have developed since Robinson Cano.
Associated Press photos
By my count, the Yankees added 10 brand new players to the big league roster — players who had not been in the organization when the season started — between the July 15 All-Star Game and the end of the regular season.
Second-half moves like that happen every year as teams try to plug holes here and there, but the Yankees’ second-half additions stand out because of just how many have either re-signed, stayed on the roster, or otherwise impacted the organization going forward. This list isn’t made entirely of lingering players, but there are lot of them.
LHP Rich Hill – Signed to a minor league deal immediately after the all-star break, Hill was allowed to leave via free agency this offseason. Perhaps his lasting impact is the fact he was the guy called up when the Yankees let go of Matt Thornton on waivers. That was a money saving move, and having Hill in Triple-A presumably made it a little easier (there really wasn’t another lefty to bring up before Hill was added to the mix).
3B Chase Headley – Seems safe to assume Headley would have been on the Yankees radar this offseason regardless of his second-half stint in pinstripes, but the Yankees clearly liked what they saw, and Headley has acknowledged that he enjoyed the New York experience more than he expected. Would these two have found common ground without that late-season audition? Maybe not.
LHP Chris Capuano – The Yankees were desperate for a starting pitcher, and Capuano was available. He had been released and was pitching in Triple-A when the Yankees acquired him, and he pitched like a good No. 5 during his 12-start stint as a rotation replacement. As other rotation options came off the table earlier this month, the Yankees eventually found their way back to the guy who pitched better than expected late in the season.
2B Martin Prado – Of all the names on the list, this is the only one clearly intended to be a long-term fix. The Yankees planned to use Prado in the outfield last season, but he wound up playing all over the field, and it was that versatility that made him a strong fit going forward. His ability to play second base has freed the Yankees to re-sign Headley, and Prado’s ability to play the outfield might eventually free them to add Rob Refsnyder.
SS Stephen Drew – Perhaps this was the audition that had the opposite impact of Headley. Finishing off a strange year in which he signed late and missed spring training, Drew came to the Yankees at the trade deadline with the expectation that he could learn and new position and improve his offensive numbers. The first part was no problem — Drew looked good at second — but the offense never got better. It seems telling that Drew’s still on the free agent market.
RHP Esmil Rogers – A waiver claim at the trade deadline, Rogers showed moments of promise mixed with moments that explained why he was so readily available in the first place. As the season was winding down, Rogers didn’t have a defined role and he entered this offseason as a prime non-tender candidate. The Yankees, though, got him to take a pay cut as they prepare to give him one more look as either a long man, a one-inning reliever, or possibly a starter.
OF Chris Young — This move was easy to mock at the time. Young, after all, had been released by the Mets earlier in the season and there seemed little chance that such a castaway would play any sort of role with the Yankees. But he signed a minor league deal, got a September call-up, hit a few home runs, and wound up with a new one-year deal as the team’s fourth outfielder. That late signing might have made all the difference.
LHP Josh Outman – Basically added to the mix because he seemed like a better left-on-left option than Hill, but late in the year it was Hill getting more of the prime matchup situations, and Outman wound up dumped back into free agency. Hard to remember Outman was ever on the roster in the first place.
RHP Chaz Roe – A late acquisition turned September call-up, Roe is a former first-round pick who pitched two innings for the Yankees, walked three guys, allowed three hits, gave up two earned runs and was never heard from again.
OF Eury Perez – End-of-the-season waiver claim who got 10 at-bats before the end of the season. He might have been let go this winter, but Perez was given an extra option and now seems likely to open the season in Triple-A as a bit of right-handed outfield depth. He has some speed to go with a .360 on-base percentage in the minors. Probably not a guy who’s going to play a significant role going forward, but he’s still in the mix at this point.
Associated Press photos